Fact-Checking Campaign Lies: Does Anybody Give a Damn?

In an era when public untruths wind up as one- or two-line bulletin on our smart phones, how do we break the cycle of lying and public forgetting?


When it comes to ethics in the presidential campaign, the 1960s folk-rock band Buffalo Springfield had a fitting line: "There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear."

"It" in this case appears to be misrepresentations fully tolerated by each side, in part because they think most voters just don't really care or are too dumb to notice. So much for actual facts revealed in Twitter-like real time by an increasingly watchful political media. Consider:

  • Politico detailed how top officials (unnamed) in both the Obama and Romney organizations agree on much about the campaign. They both speak about the need to go negative, no matter how the press derides their ads' tones and half-truths. They "privately scoff at the media's obsession with fact checking, arguing that reporters and voters can't pay attention long enough to penalize a candidate for being full of it."

  • Romney's pollster, Neil Newhouse, told a breakfast group at the Republican National Convention that "we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," whom he feels bring their own belief systems to their handiwork.

  • David Brooks, a New York Times columnist who has interviewed Paul Ryan often, was bewildered by parts of his convention speech. "I've never heard him utter sentiments remotely like that," he said in a published dialogue with colleague Gail Collins regarding Ryan's criticism of the Simpson-Bowles plan. "If you've got a guy famous for truth-telling, why feed him a bunch of semi-deceptions," he said, alluding to what he assumed was campaign insistence on certain talking points parroted by Ryan.

"Both sides are implicated," said Colin Greer, a left-leaning Scottish-born educator who runs the New World Foundation, a social justice organization in New York. "They don't tell the truth about each other. Can we expect our children to trust and believe us as they grow up?"

There are not only some obvious distinctions between political hyperbole and lies. There's also the reality that some deceptions, both in our personal lives and in areas like military intelligence, can certainly be justified. But one can also deceive without lying, such as in telling a hospital patient you know is dying that they look better today.

For sure, some moralists argue that any and all lying is wrong. Charles Fried, a prominent jurist and Harvard Law School professor, asserted in his 1978 work Right and Wrong, "A good man does not lie. It is this intuition which brings lying so naturally within the domain of things categorically wrong."

And in her seminal work, Lying: Moral Choice in Private and Public Life (also 1978, apparently a big year for opining on deceit), philosopher-ethicist Sissela Bok raised the hypothetical predicament of a society in which telling the truth was not commonplace -- namely, the inability to trust much of anything you hear or read.

That could place on the individual the burden of independently trying to discern the truth about most matters. That was the point indirectly made by Jeff Seglin, a public-policy and ethics expert at Harvard's Kennedy School, when I asked for counsel on what to tell an eight-year-old about the deceit around him in our public arena.

"My first question to an eight-year-old -- if any eight-year-old would care and wouldn't just think this is a bunch of adults talking to invisible people on empty chairs -- would be to ask him, if two friends told him two things that fly directly in contrast to one another, what he would do," said Seglin.

"If one friend tells him that Derek Jeter was caught corking his bats and another told him that Derek Jeter is the most consistent player since Cal Ripken, what would he do?" (Seglin knows I'm a ravenous Yankees fan.) "Would he go with the latter simply because he likes Jeter? Would he just shrug? Or would he take it on himself to suss out the facts?"

Of course, in the political sphere, we now have the cottage industry of fact-checking of the candidates' every assertion or pregnant pause. It's done by the respective campaigns and by an increasing number of media outlets. Indeed, within an hour after Ryan had finished his convention speech, there were tweets, blogs, and stories galore on his misrepresentations.

"Small lies invade everything: cheating on tests by kids at Harvard, the scandal of teachers messing with kids in New York private schools. Institutions have lost a moral center, as has the country."

That would seem to make all our lives easier and constitute a salutary contribution to campaign discourse in a democracy. But if the campaign officials interviewed by Politico are correct -- that ample disclosure of such fudging, even outright deceit, won't have much impact -- what does that say?

"Basic institutions have been usurped by the small lie," said Greer. "A big lie is recognizable and has impact, but the small lie undermined the ability to believe in the truth, leads you to think there's no such thing as truth."

"Small lies invade everything: cheating on tests by kids at Harvard, the scandal of teachers messing with kids in New York private schools. Institutions have lost a moral center, as has the country."

During the Bush years, he said, "there was never a declaration about the use of torture. During the Clinton years, there was no admission of his [unseemly personal] behavior. The fact that he's now a national hero is to some obscene."

Greer and others see what's playing out in politics as part and parcel of a distinctly broader affliction. It's the inner-city kids who leave school early, hit the streets, and get involved in a crime-ridden underground economy. But it's also the elite who go to graduate business schools and are caught in what Greer deems a "parallel universe," leaving places like Harvard to found a company and be insincerely charming, perhaps fudging a few facts, so they can lure investors to their start-ups.

Everybody is fudging, and perhaps fewer people care than one would hope.

Greer notes that July brought multiple cases of huge corporate fines for cheating. The largest was $3 billion to be paid by GlaxoSmithKline, the huge British pharmaceutical firm, both for hawking antidepressants for unapproved uses and for not reporting safety data involving a big-selling diabetes drug. It also conceded that it wrongly marketed other drugs.

Did you know that? Do you care? Imagine, a $3 billion fine for cheating and risking lives -- and it's just another one- or two-line bulletin on our smart phones, quickly forgotten by most.

So what do we do?

"I'm not sure," said Greer, "except begin to build a curriculum in schools where passing a test is not the only matter and who you are as a person doesn't count as much. We don't teach morals or civics in elementary schools, civics being our responsibility to behave in the overall society."

But is it also possible that these afflictions go in cycles and, in some fashion, slightly exhaust themselves. A few, like Greer, believe that's true.

"There's a lot of cheating going on and that's not new," said Greer. "But nothing really surprises anybody anymore. One really can't imagine the muckrakers of old revealing butcheries in canning companies. Today, the firms would pay a fine and that would be the end of it."